Monika’s dacha

I’m constantly amazed at the way in which our neighbours personalize their plots on the allotments . This one’s really beautiful because it combines really well maintained growing spaces with the most inviting shed on the entire site. The cast iron stove outside used to be on the inside but I think it was somewhat hazardous and so it’s been moved – although come winter it might find its way back. Monika started off with very little experience of gardening but she’s learning fast. The shed, and the greenhouse at the other end are both made from recycled materials. The greenhouse seems to be constructed entirely from discarded shower doors; fruits of a friendship with a Polish builder on furlough.

Quiet space, private space – call it what you will – are one of the most significant benefits of allotment life, and we see it expressed in dozens of different ways across the site. On one plot a sawn down tree stump serves to secure one end of a hammock which is shared by the couple whose allotment it is. One digs and the the other snoozes, and then they swap over. Another couple have a barn door on their shed and a lean-to greenhouse up against it. Our three buildings (shed, greenhouse and polytunnel) are so full of plants and their associated clutter, that we put up our folding chairs between two buildings and if it rains we retreat to the tunnel which is also full so we stand and look at one another and listen to the rain drumming on the polythene.

Yesterday a long delayed consignment of rhubarb (Fulton’s strawberry surprise); a tayberry and a blackberry all arrived and while Madame watered inside the tunnel I planted the fruit. Something of a change of mood has come this year because at last the final position of the beds is fixed and all the major structures are in place. There’s more civil engineering to do, like putting a roof on the compost bins and building a shelter for us; but they’ll have to wait until the autumn because we’re fully occupied in sowing, propagating, pricking out, repotting and all the day-to-day things that make springtime gardening feel like a full time job. We’ve organised a bigger than ever group of perennial herbs, bushes and small trees so we know exactly how much space there is for the rotating crops.

Which brings us to pottering – or is it puttering? For me, puttering is always the sound of a small boat with an inboard diesel engine so when we garden it’s pottering: one of the most pleasant meditative exercises ever. Instead of being grimly focused on raising the ziggurat of Ur or putting up the trellis for the hanging gardens of Babylon, we alight on the multitude of small tasks like browsing bees; removing a weed here and there; replacing a tree tie; doing a minute examination of a plant for signs of insects; talking to the worms in the compost heap and sniffing emergent leaves to try to guess which plant they belong to. Or it might be dozing in the sun, listening to the birds above the constant noise of the traffic. Even a small plot like ours generates a huge number of little tasks that individually don’t amount to much but collectively make the difference between a well run allotment and a thuggish wilderness. You may have heard the story of Brother Lawrence who, as a young monk, chafed at the mundane tasks he was given and longed for something with a bit more status. He eventually discovered the great satisfaction to be got from throwing himself into the everyday as if it were the most important job in the world. [This story was naturally appropriated by the church hierarchy whenever it felt threatened by anyone with a new idea and wanted to put them in their place – but it still stands]. There is no greater reward in gardening than the emergent qualities of a plot that seem vastly to outstrip the insignificance of the means of tending it – or to put it another way; hedge laying is cold, windy, wet and repetitive but just about the best job in town on a winter morning.

Away from the mundane, I had a fun five minutes after the memory of a chart in Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” wandered into my mind uninvited in the middle of the night. Bernard Leach was one of the key figures in 20th century studio pottery and one of the areas he was interested in was the use of wood ash in glazes. So …… stay with me here …. we use wood ash on our compost heap because it contains useful elements like potash and phosphorous and on page 162 of my almost worn out 1940 first edition there’s a table of chemical analyses of various ashes. I bet you didn’t know that unwashed apple pulp ash has the highest phosphorous content of any of the ones he tried. There’s a bit of a clue there for composters I think. What comes from this middle of the war book though is a charming lists of the available substances for burning that can be harnessed as fluxes in ceramic glazes, and it’s not science as much as anthropology. Who’d have thought that among the freely available substances were Japanese rice straw (he lived in Japan when he was young), thatching reed, autumn weeds,apple pulp, lawn mowings,bracken ash, box (Buxus) ash and apple wood. I can’t make up my mind if the poetry of the list doesn’t outweigh its usefulness to potters and gardeners.

A rather fun (and very personal) garden in Mousehole where we stayed a couple of years ago.

Shed – free

 

 

Well it had to happen.  I spoke to the new allotmenteer yesterday and she told me that my favourite shed was about to be demolished.  I begged one final photo before this aged example of of the genre disappeared – I had hoped that it would be allowed to continue its slow collapse unaided so I could carry on taking photos, maybe make a silent documentary, but it was not to be. Farewell old friend, but don’t worry about me – I’ve found another one already.

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Taking stock?

img_4859I think I might be a bit of a perfectionist. I had three hours on the allotment this morning while Madame cultured the cold I was good enough to share with her last week, and so I took this photo of the bed I dug today so I could show her when I got back to the flat. But what do I see when I put it on the screen? Any sensible person might have paid attention to the neat bed and its readiness for planting up in the spring. All I could see was the tiny bit of couch root at the bottom left hand corner that I’d managed to overlook. Pefectionism is a blight and it’s often accompanied by being unable to choose between several almost identical course of action.  Should I drive the pegs for the boards into the paths or the beds?  There’s much to be said for either course of action and I’ve wasted hours wondering about it.

Madame takes a more laid-back view of things and is quite happy to snooze on the little patio I made, while I pace up and down worrying.  Today I made up my mind I was going to do something about it.  I’d rather be like Terry up at the top, who spends as much time sitting in his shed drinking coffee as he does actually doing things. img_3327In fact our shed has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Since it got so full of – things – it’s impossible even to step into it, but I made a flask of tea and resolved that I would take a break now and again just to contemplate the fruits of our labours and dream of next season. Three hours later Madame rang me on the mobile and asked if I’d enjoyed the flask.  Well actually I’d completely forgotten about it and then I felt embarassed at being so lame about taking a break so I put the tools away, since I’d finished all I wanted to do, and perched on a kneeler drinking the tea in a penetrating wind and feeling that I ought to be experiencing a lot more pleasure than I was actually having. I seem to lack the zen like gift of contemplation that seizes nearly everyone else on the site.  So then I picked leeks, parsley and Brussels sprouts for supper tonight and came back to the flat.

I mentioned a few days ago how sometimes trying to be as self-sufficient as possible can become a burden, but to be honest the real burden is beating yourself up over things that don’t matter all that much. Often, when I’m in that frame of mind I make stock.  It may sound weird but there’s something very comforting in making the ultimate comfort food. The fridge feels empty if I haven’t got a couple of pints of home made chicken stock ready to add its pixie dust to the everyday. Chicken soup is – like the joke – an antibiotic for all faiths and none.  It’s hard to imagine not feeling better after a bowl of it. Today I was using up the remains of the last stock chicken to make a chicken and leek pie sauced in a velouté enriched by stock and cream.  Yes they ought to make it illegal but they haven’t yet so tonight Madame will be raised from her lethargy and will feel immediately better.